Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News
A crowd watches fireworks during Freedom

The July 1 Freedom Blast celebration at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium is a bust.

So, make that three promoters who have tried unsuccessfully over the years to make an Independence Day celebration work at the 45,000-seat stadium.

"We're trying to evaluate why it's going on," said Mark Burk, the university's director of stadium and arena-event services. "However, we've been through this about three times now."

The show needed about 25,000 tickets at $25 to $50 a piece to break even. But promoters John and Sherri Whittaker fell well short of that. As of Thursday, Burk said all of the estimated 1,600 tickets sold were electronically refunded.

"They took a risk like they take every year," said Linda Walton, with the Whittakers' public-relations firm, Walton Group.

The Whittakers had previously been promoters for the Stadium of Fire celebration at Brigham Young University, which is now handled by a promoter in California, according to Walton. The promoters of the BYU show, also held on July 1, have offered to honor Freedom Blast tickets at their show, Walton added, but nothing has been finalized yet.

Walton said the Whittakers may be out an estimated $100,000 they owed upfront to contracted headliners Sugarland and "Blue Collar Comedy's" Bill Engvall. Local performers will also miss their chance to entertain an audience.

The event was also meant to serve as Utah's Independence Day naturalization ceremony. Those who were expecting to receive their citizenship will have to wait for a regularly scheduled ceremony later in July, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Burk and Walton offer several reasons why Fourth of July celebrations at the U. haven't worked.

"I think there's probably a list of a dozen different things that added five percent or 10 percent to the problem," Walton said.

Too much traffic, lack of interest in the scheduled talent, competing celebrations that are free to the public and reluctance to fight crowds are partly to blame.

Walton said her firm did twice as much marketing for Freedom Blast as has been done for any July 4 event at the U. over the past 28 years.

"We're not novices at this," she said. "This one has just not worked."

Two other promoters have brought well-known musical acts to Rice-Eccles Stadium such as the Beach Boys, Chicago, Huey Lewis and Kenny Loggins, but even those shows struggled to attract people for an Independence Day event, Burk said.

For the fireworks portion of those shows, he added, people would simply gather outside or near the stadium — for free — and watch the display.

Even though the U. won't lose much money on the cancelled show — less than $1,000 to handle ticket refunds — officials there are frustrated at the missed opportunity to make money by charging the promoter for rent, ticketing services and event staffing.

Burk said a promoter has expressed an interest in bringing a July 24 show to Rice-Eccles in celebration of Utah's Pioneer Day. But unless that date would generate at least 20,000 tickets sold, he added, it wouldn't be worth considering.


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